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In Jesus’ Name

San Williams

September 30, 2012
Mark 9:38-50

09-30-2012 Sermon This is one of those passages that make us want to slam the Bible shut and limit our Sunday reading to the sports section of the newspaper, or maybe open our computer to check out recent postings on Facebook. Today’s reading in Mark’s Gospel is chock full of troubling references, including exorcisms, dire warnings about millstones tied around necks as people are tossed into the sea, severed hands and feet, eyes plucked out, and the unquenchable fire of hell. Be warned: today’s reading is not for the spiritually squeamish.   Yet before we dismiss this reading as too offensive to our modern sensibilities, let’s give it a second look.  Yes, it’s a shocking passage, but maybe Jesus is trying to shock us–shock us into a new way of thinking and acting.

Notice first the anxiety expressed by Jesus’ disciples.  Earlier Jesus had sent them out to minister in his name, giving them authority over the unclean spirits. Yet in today’s reading the disciples see an outsider doing what they thought only they had been authorized to do.  John gives voice to the disciples’ anxiety when he says to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Note John didn’t say to Jesus:  “He’s not following you,” but rather, “he’s not one of us.”  He doesn’t belong to our group, he’s not a member of the chosen band.  This outsider made the disciples uneasy about their own status, power and authority.  Is it possible, they wondered, that God acts through people who are beyond our discipleship circle?  The disciples’ anxiety spiked because this stranger had blurred the membership boundary, making it harder to identify who’s in and who’s out.

Don’t we share that anxiety today?  After all, many folks who claim to be Christians aren’t our type of Christians.  They don’t necessarily do things decently and in order. Austin author Donna Johnson has written a memoir about growing up in the family of tent-revivalist David Terrell.  Brother Terrell was the kind of preacher who would put his hand on a person’s forehead, and that person would fall backwards slain in the Spirit.  Terrell would stomp around the platform, pray in tongues, dance, shout, and heal everyone  “in the name of Jesus,”  Like many tent-style preachers, Brother Terrell didn’t go to any seminary, wasn’t approved by any denomination, wasn’t accountable to any ecclesiastical body.  When we see or hear Christians using the name of Jesus in un-Presbyterian ways, we may react as the first disciples did. We’d stop them if only we knew how.  But the truth is, there are all kinds of folks out there who pray and preach and live out their faith in ways that are different, unfamiliar and sometimes offensive.  Where are the boundaries here?  How do we determine who’s legit and who’s not?

Go a step further. What about folks of other faiths, or those of no faith? Last Sunday our neighbors at Nueces Mosque held an open house, opening their doors and expressing hospitality to their neighbors. Does God work though the good deeds of others, even when they don’t share our tradition?  How open can we be to outsiders with whom we have much in common and still maintain the integrity of our own faith tradition? These questions are not easily answered.  From the very beginning, diversity of religious expression has created tension and anxiety in the disciple community.

But interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t share his disciples’ concern. With an apparent wave of his hand, he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  In one phrase he dismisses the disciples’ concern, and raises a much more important one.  Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned about maintaining the boundary of discipleship as he is about the behavior of his disciples.  Don’t worry about this other guy, he declares, but you do need to worry about yourself lest you become a stumbling block to one of the ‘little ones,” the children, the vulnerable, the poor.  Jesus turns the disciples’ attention away from this outsider and toward their own behavior as his disciples.

In language that we find shocking, Jesus warns his disciples of what’s at stake for them. “It’s better to enter life maimed…” he says, “than to be thrown into hell.”   Is Jesus using hyperbolic speech? Yes, probably.  Does Jesus literally intend for us to sever hands and feet, and pluck out eyes if they are a stumbling block?  Doubtful. But does Jesus think that how we live as his disciples is a matter of supreme importance?  Absolutely!   He may not be calling on us to literally pluck out our eye, but if our eye looks out on others disdainfully, hatefully or lustfully, then the eye is not serving the purpose God intended.  Our hands are wonderful instruments, but if they are used to grab, to hoard, to hit or to hurt, then our hands are useless to God.  And our feet are totally unavailing if they lead us in paths of selfish gain instead of drawing us closer to God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

Jesus intends his disciples to reflect the life of God’s Kingdom in everything we do.  The alternative, Jesus warns, is hell.  We can agree with Keith Wright that Jesus didn’t intend for us to conceive of hell as a place of eternal punishment.  Yet clearly Jesus did believe that life can become hellish.  I’m content to accept the way Princeton theologian Daniel Migliore puts it:  “Hell, “ he says, “is simply wanting to be oneself apart from God’s grace and in isolation from others…hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.”

Friends, I believe Jesus is warning us in the most serious way not to be casual toward the things about which God is absolutely passionate.  Jesus isn’t concerned about “who’s in and who’s out.” Rather, he cares about how we, his disciples, reflect his love toward others.  He expects us to be salted, flavored, seasoned with the fire of his loving Spirit.  In the chapter from which our reading today is taken, Mark gives two specific illustrations for what it means to live and work in Jesus’ name.  In one instance, Jesus bids us to welcome the children—the small, the weak and vulnerable. And in today’s reading he mentions offering a cup of water in his name.  These two simple acts of hospitality illustrate a willingness to act lovingly toward the most vulnerable, the most in need, and even those who are unlovable.

Last Tuesday morning at our Uplift assistance program, well over a hundred folks gathered for assistance of one kind of another.  At the opening assembly, one of the clients stood up and sang a gospel solo.  A warm welcome was offered to everyone present.  B.W. Ryan had the crowd laughing and slapping their knees with his wry sense of humor.  A prayer was offered for the well being of every person there.  A table of cinnamon toast and other refreshments was set out.  Now that’s the kind of salty hospitality that Jesus requires of his disciples.

Well, if you found today’s passage a bit shocking, so did I.  But I hope it will shock us so much that we’ll examine our own behavior as Jesus’ disciples.  Then, seasoned with the salt of compassion, kindness and care, we will be able to serve our neighbors and live in peace with one another.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.